Last chance to see: Gustav Metzger’s LIFT OFF!

Pioneer of a mid-20th Century movement that centred around Auto-Creative and Auto-Destructive art, Gustav Metzger sought to find a way of integrating art with scientific and technological advances – or even to remove the artist from the process of creation altogether. Now, his site-specific sculpture-experiments have been recreated in an intriguing retrospective at Kettle’s Yard.

Metzger began his studies at Cambridge School of Art in 1945, just as the full extent of the Holocaust’s mechanised horrors were coming to light, and Nazi generals were being publicly hanged for war crimes in his home city of Nuremberg. It is hard to imagine the extent of public disillusionment in humanity that these atrocities must have engendered, the depth of distrust of mankind’s motivations in harnessing scientific discovery.

For Metzger, a Jewish boy who had fled Germany with his family six years before, aged just 13, this distrust must have weighed heavily against his fascination with all things mechanical, his obsession with physical and chemical reactions. It is this strain between a love of science and suspicion of human intervention that provides the key to understanding his work. “The artist acts in a political framework whether he knows it or not. Whether he wants to or not,” as Metzger put it; the way to escape this, he felt, is to take oneself out of the equation, handing over the creation of artworks to technological interactions.

To do this, Metzger focussed on creating the conditions for reactions but avoiding the actual execution. In Light Drawings, fibre optic cables are placed on photosensitive paper and surrounded by fans that guide the path of the ensuing design around the canvas. Liquid Crystal Environment sees heat-sensitive liquid crystals placed between rotating glass slides and projected against screens, with the crystals changing colour as they heat and cool. The result is a room full of lurid, shifting colours, controlled by a computer program in which the artist cannot intervene.

“If all factors of a work are understood, each moment is predictable,” wrote Metzger in his Fifth Manifesto. Instead, in his approach, “at a certain point, the work takes over.” The ultimate goal, he said, is to create “art, untouched by artists.”

Metzger’s creations relied on the technology being developed at the time, and his experimental sculptures can feel tame in comparison to the more avant-garde uses of rapid prototyping and other forms of computerised art that could barely have been conceived of when his investigations began. It is important to view early “computer art” like this, as the critic Pete Kilgannon wrote in 1970, as experimentation, rather than art in the usual sense; the focus is less the outcome than the medium, and Metzger was as much a scientist as an artist, happiest observing the most minute changes that different conditions would have on an “automatic” outcome than in seeking to create a preconceived aesthetic idea. The retrospective is most usefully viewed as an early laboratory or incubator of auto-creative and auto-destructive techniques than as a gallery of the finished article.

The highlight of the exhibition, in fact, is a video interview filmed earlier this year between Elizabeth Frank, the exhibition’s curator, and the artist himself. Now approaching his 90s, Metzger is a captivating screen presence: charming, modest and unpretentious, but above all exuding a guileless wonder about the world that reveals his extreme sensitivity to movement, shape and rhythm.

Metzger’s art, as he once said, is “intended to stimulate and enhance every day life,” and while his creations may almost seem dated today, it would be a mistake to underestimate how fresh and vital these ideas felt during the nascent computerisation of the 60s and 70s. His ideas contributed enormously to overlaps between art and science, inspiring thinkers and cultural commentators from Yoko Ono to William Burroughs, creating a movement that helped to shape the way we experience art and sculpture today.

Gustav Metzger: LIFT OFF! is showing until Sunday August 31st at Kettle’s Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ; Tues-Sun 11.30am-5pm; Admission Free